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NTSB, law enforcement trying to put the brakes on distracted driving

December 21, 2011|By ROXANN MILLER | roxann.miller@herald-mail.com

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - — It's an image that can shoot fear through your nervous system.

That oncoming car headed straight for you is manned by an absent-minded driver, head tilted slightly downward, intent on sending that next text message.

Gone are the days of leisurely drives, replaced instead by a barrage of cellphone chatting, texting and a litany of other distractions.

"It seems as if driving has taken a secondary place. Your vehicle should be your primary focus. When you get in that car, your attention should be on the road," Pennsylvania State Police Trooper Michele Davis said recently.

"For many, it's become a secondary thing. The primary thing is answering your phone, sending a text, going on the web or looking at your GPS," Davis said.

According to statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, more than 5,000 people died in crashes caused by distractions in 2009. Those sobering statistics have agencies clamoring for changes in the law.

"It takes literally only three to five seconds for your car to go the length of a football field. If you look away for five seconds, that's how far your car can travel without you looking at the road — that's scary," Davis said.

Recently, the National Transportation Safety Board said it wants every state to ban electronic devices, including hands-free devices while driving.

Since the NTSB is an independent federal agency that investigates transportation accidents and makes recommendations on safety-related issues, it has no power to impose restrictions.

However, it does carry considerable weight with federal regulators, and congressional and state lawmakers.

Currently, the cellphone laws vary from state to state.

In March, Pennsylvania will ban texting for all drivers. The ban is a primary law, meaning police may pull over drivers for a violation.

West Virginia bans all texting and cellphone use (handheld and hands-free) for novice drivers. The ban is a primary law.

Maryland bans texting and handheld cellphones for all drivers. The state bans all cellphone use (handheld and hands-free) for novice drivers. The texting ban is a primary offense, while the cellphone law is a secondary offense.

"Text messaging requires visual, manual and cognitive attention from the driver, it is by far the most alarming distraction," according to the U.S. Department of Transportation's website on distracted driving.

Davis said texting can actually mimic someone with a blood-alcohol level at the legal limit of .08 percent.

She said there are a lot of the same similarities between someone texting and being intoxicated, such as failure to maintain a safe speed, weaving in and out of traffic, inability to stay in their lane, and speeding up and slowing down.

"Is it really worth risking your life or somebody else's life to pick up that phone or to send that text message? If it's truly, truly an emergency, and you need to make that phone call, then pull over to the side of the road," Davis said.

Weary of hearing about texting-related accidents, Pam Rajtik of Chambersburg, Pa., formed Parents Against Texting Teens, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating teens about the dangers of texting and driving.

"The thing with texting is your eyes are off the road, your hands are off the steering wheel and your mind is off the road — you are just distracted," Rajtik said.

She isn't convinced the NTSB's recommendation is the way to solve the distracted-driving epidemic.

"The thing about laws: We don't really need them if people would just do the right thing. It would be hard to monitor or police. I think it's a good idea, but I don't know if that's the right way to do it," she said.

Ultimately, she said it's about parents enforcing the rules for teens. She also applauds the limits Pennsylvania recently imposed on junior drivers, which goes into effect Dec. 27.

Not only is texting an issue, but also any type of distracted driving poses a danger.

Texting, using a cellphone, eating or drinking, talking to passengers, grooming, reading directions, using navigation devices, watching a video or tuning the radio are all taking the driver from the primary role of driving.

Hands-free devices are just as distracting, according to Davis.

"People think that it's a much safer avenue, but it's inattention blindness," Davis said. "You are looking at the road, but you aren't actually seeing it, because you are so into the conversation that you're distracted."

She said it's not actually the holding of the phone that's distracting the driver. It's the fact that the driver's mind is focused on the conversation and not on the road.

A study by Carnegie Mellon showed that using a cellphone while driving reduces the amount of brain activity associated with driving by 37 percent.

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